We must go down to the sea again: in search of Hector’s Dolphins

27 November 2019

Many of our best experiences during this visit to New Zealand have happened when we’ve taken boat trips to get up close to marine mammals and seabirds, so it seems only fitting that we spend our last afternoon in the country out on the sea. Our main target is to see some Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest of all dolphin species, but hopefully there will be good views of birds and the coastline, and maybe even a fur seal or two.

As we board our little boat we’re greeted by Buster, the skipper’s dog, kitted out in his bright orange life vest. We learn that he loves his daily voyage, and gets very excited when dolphins are spotted. On at least four occasions the cry of “dog overboard” has been raised, but each time he’s been fished out with nothing injured other than his dignity.

Heading out from Akaroa we spot some White-fronted Terns keeping pace with the boat. We’re pleased to see them, but there’s no time to hang around – we have to find ourselves some dolphins.

We make our way out along Akaroa Harbour, which is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs, some cut by picturesque arches and windows. The skipper takes us in close enough for photos, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for dolphins. Meanwhile Buster’s getting bored, and works his way around the passengers, making new friends wherever he goes.

Before too long the skipper finds what we’re all hoping to see. Hector’s Dolphins are unique to New Zealand, and are classed as “nationally endangered”, with their population thought to be around 10,000. Banks Peninsula as a whole is home to around 1,000 of them, three or four of which have made themselves known to us.

These are the smallest of any dolphin species, adult females measuring no more than 1.4m (4 feet 7 inches) and weighing in at up to 60kg (132 lbs). Males are a little smaller and lighter. At birth, calves are just 60-80cm (24 to 31 inches) long and weigh 8-10kg (18 to 22 lbs). They’re said to look like a rugby ball with flippers, which I guess is just the sort of description that you’d expect New Zealanders to come up with!

To their credit, successive New Zealand governments have worked hard to protect the Hector’s Dolphin. Measures taken include the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and the introduction in 1992 of the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations to regulate marine mammal tourism activities.

The dolphins swim up to the boat, follow alongside us for a while and dive repeatedly beneath our hull. They are fast-moving and can disappear below the waves in the blink of an eye. However they’re definitely less confiding, and therefore a lot more challenging, than the Dusky Dolphins that we saw earlier in our travels. Mrs P’s taking photos and I’m on video duty, and we both end up with more images of empty sea than of the dolphins themselves.

Eventually the dolphins get fed up, and swim off to amuse themselves elsewhere. But our fun’s not over yet. As we head back towards Akaroa town we’re pleased to see our old friend the Pied Shag, a handsome bird with dazzling undersides and bright blue eyes.

We soon spot another old friend hauled out on the rocks. The New Zealand Fur Seal has been a regular companion throughout our six weeks in the country, and today’s no exception. They’ve bounced back from the verge of extinction, and – as we’ve discovered – can now be found all around the New Zealand coastline.

Just a few hundred metres from the fur seals is a colony of Spotted Shags. They’re less striking than their cousin the Pied Shag, but nevertheless a good bird to see. The captain gives us a couple of minutes to admire them and then continues on towards our home port, where we must bid a fond farewell to the ebullient Buster.

Mrs P and I have mixed feelings. It’s been another great boat trip, and the elusive, super-speedy Hector’s Dolphins have been something special. Not to mention Buster, who is also pretty damned cute. But this will be the last excursion we will ever take in New Zealand, because tomorrow we’re heading off to Christchurch to catch our flight back to the UK.

Loving the birds, spreading the word (Part 2: Penguins again)

22 November 2019

Having filled our birding boots at the Royal Albatross Centre, we head off for another special treat: penguins. Everyone loves a penguin: improbable, comical, cute, even iconic, and amongst the non-birders on the bus – that’s everyone except us, it seems – there’s a palpable sense of anticipation as we set off.

Fur seal, posing like a mermaid

Although we’ve been in New Zealand several weeks and seen all three species of penguin that breed here, we’re looking forward to meeting up with some of them again. I mean, you really can’t see enough penguins, can you? And also, our only previous view of the rarest of them all – the Yellow-eyed Penguin – was disappointingly distant, so we’re hoping to do better this time.

The company we’ve booked with has a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula. Our bus first takes us to a cliff-top, from where we scramble down a short but steep path to take a look at a bunch of fur seals. Some cavort in the water and pose like mermaids, while others stand proud on the rocks, masters of all they survey.

New Zealand Fur Seals have recovered well from the predations of the nineteenth century sealers, who almost drove them to extinction. Although we’ve seen them several times previously around South Island it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance once again.

Fur seal standing proud, master of all he surveys

But we have to tear ourselves away, and make our way down to the beach if we’re to see the penguins. Trouble is, the path is long and way too steep for us to cope with, given the condition of our backs, hips and knees, which have deteriorated markedly in recent days. No question, at the end of this holiday we’re going to need a bloody good rest.

Mrs P has been anxious for a while about not being able to make it down to see the penguins at all , so yesterday she phoned the tour company and explained our predicament. To their credit, Elm Wildlife Tours came up with a brilliant solution. They’ve laid on an extra-powerful bus, with loads of torque and grunt, that can drive most of the way down, and – more importantly – back up the murderous incline.

Our guide explains the new arrangements to the group, and although a few mad fools decide the walk will do them good many others join us in the bus. A few minutes later we’ve made it to within spitting distance of the beach, and disembark feeling rested and in good spirits. The weary foot-soldiers arrive a few minutes later, breathing hard, sweating profusely, glowing crimson. Serves ’em right, I say!

Little Blue Penguin in an artificial burrow, partly obscured by a random piece of dead vegetation

We make our way down to the beach and happen across an artificial burrow strategically placed to attract Little Blue Penguins. These guys are found in small numbers around much of the New Zealand coastline. They rarely move on land during the daylight hours, so the best chance of seeing them on terra firma is after dark, as we did about ten days ago on Stewart Island, or maybe – if you’re very, very lucky – in the entrance to their burrows during the daytime.

But to see inside a Little Blue Penguin burrow you get down low, until your chin is almost scraping the ground. I don’t even bother – I’ll never be able to get up again – but Mrs P’s willing to get down and dirty in pursuit of a penguin. And yes, she spots one, watching her grumpily as she lines up to take a photograph. Annoyingly, a random piece of dead vegetation gets in the way, and Mrs P can’t move it for fear of upsetting the penguin. But never mind, it’s an interesting shot even if it won’t win any prizes.

The penguin hide

We walk along the beach a few hundred yards, then inland slightly to a small hide – or blind, as Americans would call it – positioned to overlook the route that Yellow-eyed Penguins take on the way to and from their nests. The hide is modest in construction but will serve its purpose: it gives good views out towards the beach and the penguins’ regular route inland, while hiding us from sight. It’s late afternoon now, about the time they start moving about on land, so we settle back and wait for the fun to begin.

He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass

And sure enough, as we scan the hillside that rises up from the beach we spot one. The slope’s steep, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Somewhere up there, hidden in the undergrowth, he must have a nest where his chicks are waiting for their next feed.

He stops to preen, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers

He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass, hauling himself along with his bill when the going gets tough. If he had teeth, he’d be gritting them. Once or twice he stops to preen himself, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers. But he doesn’t delay for long: his family needs him.

Finally he approaches the crest of the hill. He turns and looks back at the route he’s taken, the route he takes regularly so that his chicks get a decent meal every day. But there’s no time to admire the view, he still has a distance to travel. At last he makes it to the top. His nest must be there somewhere over the brow of the hill, his family waiting patiently for the Great Provider to return. Our hero continues grittily onwards and disappears from view, never to be seen again.

Almost at the top

With a mixture of emotions – admiration at the lone penguin’s courage and endurance, sadness at his leaving us – we turn our attention back to the shoreline. Will another penguin show himself before we have to go back to the bus?

It seems there’s nothing of interest out there, just waves crashing into the rocks and surging up the sandy beach. We’re all scanning carefully, more in hope than expectation. It’s a penguin-free zone, but then we spot a different and altogether more sinister animal instead.

A sealion, strutting the sands as if he owns the place

A sealion has hauled out, and is now strutting the sands as if he owns the place. He’s right, I guess, sealions are formidable creatures, the apex predators hereabouts. Worryingly, penguins feature in his diet, and if one shows itself now it may well end up on today’s menu. OK, I know, life’s hard and sealions have to eat. Of course they do, but not penguins and not on my watch, please.

We feel conflicted. We badly want to see another penguin, but at the same time worry that if one turns up its blood and guts will be all over the sand within minutes. Time stands still for a while. The sealion watches and waits, and so do we, listening to the steady rhythm of the waves slapping into the sand.

He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers and begins to waddle up the beach

And then we spot him, another penguin in the surf. He’s battling to reach the beach without being smashed into the rocks that are scattered along it. Finally a wave drives him between the boulders and shoves him belly-first into the sand in an undignified heap. He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers, and begins to waddle up the beach.

The penguin isn’t heading directly for the sealion, but his route will take him too close. Once the sealion spots him it’s curtains: a sealion on land can move surprisingly swiftly; a penguin can’t. We all watch, transfixed, waiting to see how the story will play out, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

Suddenly the penguin stops dead in his tracks and studies the way ahead. He’s obviously detected the sealion’s presence, and in a second he’s turned 180 degrees and is hot-footing it back to the safety of the sea. We all heave a sigh of relief, and start to relax.

It seem like Mission Impossible, but just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen

Too soon. The penguin is on a mission, his chicks need feeding so he’s got to find a way past his enemy. He re-emerges from the sea, some distance from his previous landfall, and heads for the safety on the grassy hill beyond the beach. But once again he’s too close to the sealion, and turns back.

We can hardly bear to watch. The longer it goes on the more certain we are that it will end badly, at least from the penguin’s perspective. It seems like he’s on Mission Impossible, only just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen.

But at last, after what seems like an eternity, the penguin finds a path that will take him to his destination without drawing the attention of the sealion. We watch for minute after agonising minute until at last he’s made it, and heads off into the long grass.

We all heave a sigh of relief. We’re emotional wrecks, but at least there was a fairy tale ending. It’s time to walk back along the beach and return to the bus.

Watching the birdie

However there’s one last treat in store us. While we’ve been watching the drama unfold at one end of the beach, at the other a third penguin has taken his chance to make a run for the nest site. He’s made it over the sand to the grass beyond.

A fence-line blocks the way into some low bushes where he’s probably hidden his nest, and he has to work his way along it until he finds a gap. As he does we get a perfect view of him. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the rarest penguin in the world, and we feel privileged to get such a perfect sighting.

To end the day, a perfect sighting of a Yellow-eyed Penguin

And as this wonderful bird disappears into the undergrowth, the day draws to a close. We’ve had a great time, and so too have the first-time birders who’ve been caught up in the life and death drama of a penguin on an unremarkable beach in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Hopefully a few of them have caught the birding bug, and will soon be as passionate about it as we are.

Loving the birds, spreading the word (Part 1: The Royal Albatross)

22 November 2019

The bus picks us up at our hotel on the outskirts of Dunedin. It’s pretty much full, maybe around 20 people, all intent on spending the afternoon and early evening birdwatching on the Otago Peninsula. Our first stop will be Taiaroa Head, site of a breeding colony of albatross and home to the Royal Albatross Centre.

Driving out along the peninsula we pass several wetland birding hotspots. It appears we’re the only people on this trip who’ve ever been birdwatching before, but the others are lapping it up.

Pied Stilt

It’s as if they’re seeing and thinking about birds for the first time. They crane their necks for a better view, and leap from their seats to take photos on their cell phones.

Mrs P and I wish we could stop for a while. Being confined to a slow moving bus and watching the action through the window is frustrating; maybe we should have driven ourselves out here instead? On the other hand it’s good to see other people – ordinary tourists, just out for an afternoon excursion – enjoying an activity that has meant the world to us for more than 30 years.

Royal Spoonbill

But they don’t all get it. The guide points out a Paradise Shelduck, a good looking bird that elicits murmurs of appreciation from several passengers. And then, out of the blue, one of them pipes up brightly “Do they taste good?”

Do they taste good? For god’s sake, I think to myself, we’ve come here to look at the birds, not to fantasise about eating them. What’s the matter with you woman, who the hell do you think you are, Gordon bloody Ramsey? But I say nothing of the sort, I’m English after all, we’re far too polite to point out to idiots the truth of their idiocy, so I just look away, seething silently.

But I needn’t worry, the other passengers have been enjoying the show, and can see that eating one of the cast would be out of order. The atmosphere is suddenly frosty and pretty soon the wretched woman apologises sheepishly, saying she wasn’t thinking. Too bloody right she wasn’t.

*

The Royal Albatross Centre is an impressive building, befitting of New Zealand’s first private charitable conservation trust. The Otago Peninsula Trust was established in 1967 for the purpose of protecting and enhancing peninsula flora and fauna. The albatross were then, and remain now, the stars of the show.

Northern Royal Albatross

Albatross mostly breed on small, remote islands. Taiaora Head is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Relatively speaking they are newcomers here, the first egg having been laid in around 1920.

However there was so much predation and human interference that it was not until 1938 that the first chick fledged. Efforts to protect them increased thereafter, and in 1951 a full-time field officer was appointed. Work at the colony has continued ever since, with the result that there are about 250 albatross on the Head.

Mum and dad renewing their bond; incubation duty is about to be handed over

On arrival we are ushered into an auditorium to see a film presentation on the Royal Albatross, which explains the lifecycle of these magnificent birds and outlines the threats they face. We learn that the adult birds have a wing span of 3 metres (nearly 10 feet) and weigh between 8 and 9 kilograms (18 to 20 lbs). Even more stunning, at seven months old a chick weighs in at between 10 and 12 kilograms (22 to 26 lbs) – it seems amazing they can ever take off.

Prospective albatross parents arrive at Taiaora Head in September to re-establish their pair bonds. Nests are built and eggs laid in November. Incubation lasts 11 weeks, with both parents sharing the duties. Eggs hatch in late January or February, with chicks taking around three days to force their way out of their shells.

The Royal Albatross’ wingspan and a (wo)man’s outstretched arms compared

Rearing the chicks takes several months, with parents sharing the feeding duties. The birds fledge in September, and will be absent between four and six years before hopefully returning to raise youngsters of their own. The parents take a well-deserved year off before coming back here to go through the whole process again.

Threats to breeding birds on Taiaora Head include introduced mammalian predators (rats, ferrets, stoats and feral cats), climatic extremes, fire and human disturbance. To limit the latter, the only public access is via small guided tours – like the one we are on – to an observatory at one section of the reserve.

Up close and personal with Red-billed Gulls. Note the chick, to the left of the uppermost adult gull

So, having been given the lowdown on what we’re about to see, we are led from the Visitor Centre in a group, up a steep slope towards the observatory. On the way we pass clusters of Red-billed Gulls, some just metres from the path. There are reckoned to be around 4,000 at Taiaora Head, and they seem unconcerned by the constant stream of visitors walking to and from the observatory. Mrs P and I are pleased to see them, and also delighted that so many people are plainly enjoying getting close to nature.

The observatory is a large, purpose-built bird hide, with room for perhaps 20 visitors at a time. The windows don’t open, which is frustrating from a photography point of view but absolutely right and proper: this place is all about the birds, and their welfare – including the need to be free from unnecessary human disturbance – is paramount.

Inside the observatory

The view overlooks a sloping, grass-covered headland, and beyond it the sea. There are albatross dotted here and there in the grass, some alone and others in pairs, while more wheel effortlessly above in the brisk wind. We settle down to watch the action, while our guide tells us more about what we are seeing.

Bill rubbing, an important form of socialisation

She reminds us that it is late November, so the eggs have been laid and incubation is underway. There’s a constant coming and going; albatross circle around for a while, searching for a suitable spot, then crash land in an inelegant tangle of legs and wings. Meanwhile, others take off and head out to sea.

Both birds take turns at incubating the egg, and when an adult returns to its duties after time away to feed and stretch its wings, there is a period of socialisation: they dance around one another, moving synchronously and tenderly rubbing their bills together. And then it’s time for the changing of the guard: the newly arrived adult takes over incubation, while its mate takes some time out.

Coming in to land … or maybe heading out for lunch?

It’s a joy to watch the Royal Albatross going about their business, apparently unaware of our presence. It’s also great that so many people come here to enjoy them. Man – directly or indirectly – is the greatest threat to the survival of these majestic birds, but at the same time the only hope for their salvation. If people come here and pay for the pleasure, and if the good folk of the Otago Peninsula Trust spend that money wisely, then maybe – hopefully – they have a chance.

  • Watch live action from the albatross colony. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a webcam to enable us to view the action live, 24 hours a day. Click here for the link.

The Catlins: a hidden gem

20 November 2019

The Captivating Catlins is a “hidden gem”.  A place of natural beauty, abundant wildlife, forests, sandy beaches, waterfalls and both hilly and rolling green farmland. With its comparative remoteness and stunning vistas, it’s a great destination.

SOURCE: The Official Website of the Catlins, retrieved 19 December 2019

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? As a general rule I treat the outpourings of the marketing profession with grave suspicion, given that the only reason for their existence appears to be to separate me from my hard-earned cash. But on this occasion they’ve got a point: the Catlins really is something special.

Already we’ve visited several spectacular waterfalls and a petrified forest, and spotted – albeit at some distance – the world’s rarest penguin, but there’s still lots more to explore.

Kaka Point, in the Catlins

We’re staying at Kaka Point, overlooking a sweeping bay of golden, wave-pounded sand which is totally deserted save for a pair of Variable Oystercatchers.

Variable Oystercatcher

Oystercatchers tend to be underrated, so I pop down to the beach and pay my respects. They are probing the strandline with their improbable orange bills, seeking out lunch. The birds keep a wary eye on me, screaming and yelling abuse if I get too close, twice pulling the broken wing stunt to lure me away, even flying straight at my head if I appear to be encroaching on their territory. I love these birds for their argumentative feistiness, for their utter determination to show me that I am simply an unwelcome visitor in their domain.

Approaching Nugget Point. The lighhouse is just visible

A little way along the road from Kaka Point is Nugget Point, a headland boasting a lighthouse dating from 1869-70. The lighthouse is agreeably picturesque without being exceptional, and has operated automatically – without the need for a lighthouse keeper to live on site – since 1989.

Nugget Point lighthouse, built 1869/70

The views from the base of the lighthouse are more interesting than the structure itself. Wave-eroded rocks, which those who know about such things have likened to the shape of gold nuggets, can be seen from the viewing platform. A small colony of fur seals lives here, and we’re pleased to see one lazily exploring the kelp, occasionally blowing bubbles as it does so.

A fur seal works its way along a line of kelp at Nugget Point

We’ve seen plenty of fur seals on our New Zealand expedition but still hanker after decent views of their larger, fiercer cousin, the sealion. There’s a good chance of seeing one along the coast at Surat Bay, so we decide to investigate.

Tropical paradise? No, Surat Bay in the Catlins, on New Zealand’s South Island

When we arrive the tide is some way out, exposing another vast, deserted sandy beach. It could almost be a tropical paradise, until a blast of cold wind reminds us we’re closer to the Antarctic than to the equator.

The tide rushes in at Surat Bay

The tide rushes in as we watch, submerging most of the beach in a shallow film of water. There’s no sign of sealions here, but we spot a young couple walking towards us from further along the bay and ask if they’ve encountered any. They’re French, with only limited English, but the girl talks excitedly about un magnifique lion de mer which is blocking the track just a few hundred metres away. It sounds perfect, so we quicken our pace, determined to find the animal before it buggers off for a swim.

Dozing sealion, Surat Bay

In the event, when we find him it’s evident this guy is going nowhere anytime soon. He’s hauled up at the edge of the sand dunes, just above the high water mark. The animal is huge, much larger than the biggest fur seal we’ve come across in New Zealand. Sealions can reach up to a massive 500 kilograms and are therefore not to be trifled with.

The New Zealand Sealion (formerly called Hooker’s Sealion) is the world’s rarest sealion species. Most live and breed in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands where they number about 12,000. Fewer than 200 can be found on the mainland, all in this area of the southeast coast where they have only recently started to breed.

Our sealion is dozing peacefully, occasionally flicking sand across his back, presumably to deter the biting insects for which this country is rightly infamous. We’re delighted with our find, but content to admire him from a distance. Sealions are notoriously aggressive if disturbed, and are rumoured to have an impressive turn of speed despite their corpulent build. I, for one, am not interested in testing whether or not the rumours are true.

Curio Bay: a petrified forest and a distant view of penguins

18 November 2019

We interrupt our drive from Stirling Point to our accommodation at Nugget Point to call in at Curio Bay in the Catlins, a scenic area at the southern end of South Island. The bay is most famous for its ancient petrified forest, which is revealed at low tide.

Curio Bay

A flight of steep wooden steps leads down to the foreshore, and a sign at the bottom tells us that we’re not alone. At least, I hope we’re not. The tide’s out – which is good news for viewing the petrified forest – and if our luck’s in, we’ll also catch sight of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest penguin species in the world.

Yellow-eyed Penguins rule, OK

As we step out on to the foreshore there’s no sign of the penguins. But it’s difficult to miss the petrified forest, a jumble of logs and stumps amongst the rockpools. Only, they’re not logs and stumps, are they? These are rocks in the form of trees that lived in the middle Jurassic period, around 180 million years ago, when New Zealand was at the eastern edge of the Gondwanaland super-continent. North of Curio Bay, most of future New Zealand lay beneath the sea.

Fossilised tree trunks, c180 million years old

At the time Curio Bay area was a broad, forested coastal floodplain. The climate was semi-tropical and the region subject to significant levels of volcanic activity. It’s believed that massive floods of volcanic debris, perhaps triggered by heavy rain on a nearby barren volcanic mountain, destroyed and buried the forest.

Over time, silica from the volcanic debris gradually replaced the organic material, leaving an exact replica of the trees. People who understand these things suggest that this sequence of events occurred at least four times over a period of 20,000 years, each episode contributing additional material to the fossil forest.

Fossilised tree trunk, showing the linear patterning of the original bark

New Zealand and Gondwanaland parted company around 100 million years ago. It’s only over the last 10,000 years, as the coastline of modern-day New Zealand has taken shape, that the sea has eroded away the layers of overlying sandstone and clays to reveal the fossilised tree stumps and logs on the foreshore.

The stump shows that, at the time of being swept away, the tree was of modest size

The level of detail preserved is extraordinary, particularly patterns of bark. At a quick glance it’s difficult to believe that we are not looking at real, recently toppled trees, rather than rocks in the form of trees. As well as fossilised logs lying on the foreshore we also find stumps, presumably the result of the tree trunks being snapped off and carried away during the violent floods of volcanic debris. Growth rings are visible on some of the stumps.

A distant view of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, safe behind the rope that warns us not to get too close

The area of petrified forest we are able to explore is limited. This is one of the largest and least disturbed Jurassic fossil forests in the world, stretching to some 20 kilometres (12 miles), but the far end of the bay is roped off. We look carefully, and in the distance we spot the reason: a Yellow-eyed Penguin waddling up towards the bushes and low growing trees where it presumably has a nest.

He stops his journey back to the nest for a quick preen

We’re lucky to spot this penguin, not just because they are so rare, but because it’s only 2pm and they don’t normally come ashore this early in the afternoon. It’s not a great view – we can’t get close because of the rope – but nevertheless it’s a privilege to see the third, and rarest, of New Zealand’s breeding penguins. Later on our trip we’re due to visit another spot that they frequent, and hopefully at that time we’ll get better views and better photos.

All at sea: the penguin, the mollymawk and the shameless shag

17 November 2019

Many of the best experiences during our New Zealand odyssey have happened in boats, so it’s good to get back on the water again. We’re taking a half-day pelagic trip from Stewart Island and are hoping for a seabird bonanza.

Our boat is small, and normally operates as a water taxi

The boat is small, and when it’s not taking birders out on spotting expeditions it plies its trade as a water taxi between Stewart and the surround islands. We’re in for a rough ride if the wind gets up. Fortunately as we set off the sea is fairly calm, although dark clouds on the horizon hint that there may be trouble ahead.

A pale and distant rainbow arcs over Stewart Island

As our journey begins the boat hugs the coastline, allowing us to view Stewart Island from an unfamiliar perspective. We’re pleased to see a rainbow in the distance: pleased partly because rainbows are a joy to behold, but mainly because it means some other buggers are getting wet rather than us.

White-fronted tern

Just offshore a line of jagged rocks slices through the rolling sea. Atop one sits a White-fronted Tern, sporting a distinctive black bill. Known as tara by the Maori it’s New Zealand’s commonest tern and is found in coastal waters throughout the country. It’s a good looking bird and we’d like to stay longer to admire it and its companions, but we have an appointment with some mollymawks so it’s time to move on.

Juvenile Pied Shag

As we edge along the coast we spot a Pied Shag (karuhiruhi) rookery in a tree close to the water. The tree is leafless and probably dead, an inevitable consequence of having a colony of large, messy seabirds living in – and pooing over – your branches for months on end. We’ve seen these birds at several places during our travels, but this is first time we’ve had a clear view of juveniles as well as adults. You might expect the youngsters to be cautious and a bit shy, but one of them is standing out proudly and shamelessly on a branch, watching us watching him. Judging by his behaviour and plumage he’s fast approaching maturity.

White-capped Mollymawk

We head a short way out from the coast and into open water, then turn off the engine. Having done a similar trip from Kaikoura a few weeks ago, we know the drill. Park the boat somewhere a little way out to sea, toss some fishy bits overboard and wait for the fun to begin. And so it does. The skipper chucks some offcuts from the local fish processing factory into the water close to the boat, and we all sit back to watch the action.

White-capped Mollymawk posing for baseball-capped birder

The birds are familiar with the routine, and if they spot our boat acting suspiciously in open water they know a free lunch is up for grabs. They’re not shy in coming forward, knowing from experience that the early bird catches the finest fishy offcuts. They also know that if they paddle up to the boat and look cute some bloke with a beard, baseball cap and big lens will take their photo.

White-capped Mollymawk

And why not? These are fabulously handsome birds, known as White-capped Mollymawks. A mollymawk is a small to medium sized albatross, but at nearly a metre long and weighing in at up to 4 kilograms they don’t seem either small or medium sized to me. For reasons I can’t fathom they’re also called the Shy Mollymawk, though their facial expression tells me that “cross, bad-tempered mollymawk” might be closer to the mark.

White-capped Mollymawk

We enjoy watching maybe a dozen mollymawks fly in to feed on the fish scraps our skipper offers them, squabbling angrily amongst themselves when they feel they’ve missed a particularly tasty morsel. It’s great to see them, but the experience is tinged with sadness too. These birds, along with other species of albatross, are in big trouble, innocent victims of the long line fishing industry in the southern oceans. I wonder if future generations will be able to do what we’re doing here today, getting up close and personal with these magnificent birds?

Brown (Subantarctic) Skua

Although White-capped Mollymawks are the birds most interested in what we have to offer, other species also drop in for a look . One of these is the Brown Skua, known to the Maori as hakoakoa.

Being followed by a Brown (Sub Antarctic) Skua

Similar in appearance to a skua found off the north of Scotland, these birds are scavengers that feed off carrion, as well as on other seabirds, their eggs and chicks. Always on the look out for a free meal, this one follows us as we head off to our next destination.

Little Blue Penguin

The fish scraps have all gone and the mollymawks, knowing that lunch is over, start to take their leave. The rain pours down. We need to move on too, towards Ulva Island, where the skipper will drop us off for a tour of the famous bird sanctuary. On the way we’re pleased to spot a group of Little Blue Penguins (korora to the Maori). We saw one a couple of nights ago while we were out looking for kiwi. However we failed to get any photos, so it’s good to catch a glimpse today of this trio of Little Blues swimming characteristically low in the water, untroubled by the downpour that’s giving us a soaking.

Little Blue Penguin

In Australia these are known as Fairy Penguins, and our skipper jokes that the New Zealanders don’t use that moniker on grounds of political correctness. Whatever, they’re small (the smallest penguin species in the world) and they’re blue, so the New Zealand name works just fine for me.

Fiordland Crested Penguin

Further along, on the rocky shoreline, we spot some old friends: a group of Fiordland Crested Penguins (pokotiwha). These are one of the rarest penguin species in the world and when we came to New Zealand we feared we would struggle to find any. But as it turns out, they’ve been fairly easy to find if you have a knowledgeable guide to show you where to look.

It’s been a great morning on the water. Plenty of birds and no sickness. But the day’s birding hasn’t finished yet. The skipper drops us off at Ulva Island for a guided tour of the bird sanctuary, which will be the subject of my next post.

The Stewart Island story

16 November 2019

New Zealanders we’ve met on our travels have been impressed that Stewart Island is on our itinerary. Although tourism is a major part of its economy that’s not saying much for an island with fewer than 400 permanent residents. Few New Zealanders appear to have made the trip, although many speak wistfully of popping over “one day”. It’s a classic bucket list destination.

Ulva Island viewed from Observation Point

So what’s the attraction of Stewart, the third, smallest and most southerly of New Zealand’s main islands? Visitors who cross the 30 kilometres of the Foveaux Strait mostly make the journey to go tramping (hiking). There’s a lot for them to have a go at.

At 1,680 square kilometres (650 square miles) Stewart Island is about the size of Greater London. Most of it is a rugged land of undulating hills and low peaks cloaked in pristine, primeval forest and bush growing down to the sea’s edge. Offshore is a scattering of small, picturesque islands and rocky outcrops.

Today 85% of the island is protected as a National Park, and much of the rest is uninhabited and owned by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust. The Stewart Island wilderness remains almost as it was before the first Polynesians – predecessors of the Maori – arrived in the late 13th century.

Leask Bay

A small part of me wishes we could visit Rakiura National Park, that we could do what all the fit young things with their enormous rucksacks come here to do, which is to tramp off into the bush and have an adventure in the land that time forgot.

But that’s not going to happen, partly for health reasons but mainly because life’s too short. And anyway, there’s plenty to see and to admire in the small bit of the island that’s accessible to non-trampers like us.

Halfmoon Bay, Oban. The red-roofed building on the right is the hotel.

Most of Stewart Island’s residents live in the township of Oban, on Halfmoon Bay. I guess the best word for it is quaint, just a scattering of buildings along a few roads, a tiny supermarket and a hotel that acts as the social centre for islanders and visitors alike. There’s even a giant outdoor chessboard, in case anyone gets bored.

Stewart also boasts a library, a sports and community hall, and a museum. The latter will soon be replaced by a brand new, purpose-built multi-million dollar building, the result of years of fund-raising. Given its tiny population the island has a surprising wealth of facilities that would not look out of place in a town many times its size.

On the hill overlooking Halfmoon Bay stands Oban Presbyterian Church. Being Presbyterian the church, like the name ‘Oban’, is a clue to the Scottish heritage of many of the early settlers here. Wooden and built in 1904, it’s one of the few buildings of any note in the island.

Oban Presbyterian Church

Unsurprisingly the church doesn’t have a resident minister, but worshippers benefit from various visiting preachers including Baptist, Salvation Army and Methodist as well as Presbyterian. This flexible approach to religious observance is, I suppose, another example of the compromises that have to be made in such a remote corner of New Zealand.

There’s evidently a strong sense of community: they’re all in this together, Stewart Islanders, living the dream in New Zealand’s very own “lands end.” Inevitably in a place so small everyone knows everyone else, and nobody locks their doors except the tourists. It’s a friendly, peaceful island, an improbable yet welcome escape from the hurly-burly of the modern world.

In the early decades of European colonisation whaling and sealing were mainstays of the local economy, but thankfully those activities are now but a distant memory. Fishing once employed much of the population, but modern techniques require fewer workers, so it’s left to tourism to pick up the slack.

But most of the tourists are away in the bush, doing whatever it is that trampers do, so there’s little to spoil the tranquillity of Oban other than the occasional stag party attended by mainlanders out on the razzle.

Giant chessboard on the seafront, and behind the dock from which the ferry to the mainland departs

For us Stewart Island’s most attractive feature is its birdlife. Many native New Zealand birds thrive here due to the absence of stoats and other mammalian predators. Outlandish though it may seem, to help ensure the island remains a safe haven for birds dogs must attend ‘kiwi aversion’ classes, where they are trained not to pursue these flightless New Zealand icons.

But the battle against predators hasn’t been won. Rats remain a significant problem, and while they don’t appear to threaten the adult kiwi, they prevent other native birds spreading from Stewart’s offshore sanctuary islands and gaining a foothold here.

In response, several years ago the US-based Dancing Star Foundation purchased an area of land at Mamaku Point. They enclosed it with state-of-the art predator-proof fencing, eliminated the rats and reintroduced some long-absent bird species.

Ugly but effective: part of the predator-proof fence at Mamaku Point

The Mamaku Point Conservation Trust has recently taken over from Dancing Star, and has exciting plans for its “mainland island” reserve.

The trust’s primary objective is to continue Dancing Star Foundation’s successful efforts to conserve and enhance the health and diversity of the native flora and fauna within the reserve, and the secondary objective is to facilitate education, research and public awareness of the importance of these activities.

We’re also focused on making sure the trust and reserve are as financially and environmentally sustainable as possible. In this respect, we’re working with local eco-tourism operators to develop exciting eco-tourism opportunities that will make the property accessible to the public.

SOURCE: Statement by Auckland businessman Roy Thompson, owner of the site, quoted in an article in the online news magazine Stuff, 2 August 2017, retrieved 6 December 2019.

It sounds like a brilliant initiative, which will presumably result in the creation of a reserve with similarities to the one we visited at Bushy Park a few weeks ago. Although it’s a pity we’re not able to visit the reserve, it’s encouraging to learn that there are wealthy New Zealanders prepared to support important conservation initiatives with hard cash.

The magic of Doubtful Sound

14 / 15 November 2019

We’re off on another cruise down one of the fiords that grace the coastline of this part of New Zealand, and this time we’re staying on board overnight. But Doubtful Sound is more remote than its cousin Milford, which we visited a couple of days ago. It’s about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the nearest inhabited place, the small town of Manapouri, and is surrounded by mountainous terrain with peaks typically reaching 1,300–1,600 metres (4,300–5,200 ft). Along the coast, there are no settlements for about 200 kilometres (120 miles) in either direction.

Crossing Lake Manapouri

To reach Doubtful Sound we must first take a 45 minute boat ride to the far end of Lake Manapouri. When we disembark squadrons of murderous sandflies circle around us. Not many people come here, so when these wretched mini-Draculas catch our scent they swarm all over us in their thousands, all hoping for a blood-fest.

Waterfall and rainforest at the Wilmot Pass

Our specially commissioned minibus arrives to rescue us from our sandfly misery, and soon we’re off on the next leg of our trip. We travel for around 60 minutes on a gravel road, climbing up a mountainside to cross over the Wilmot Pass through Fiordland’s rainforest, and then descending on the other side to the wharf at Milford.

The gravel road does not connect with South Island’s main network of highways. It and the wharf only exist courtesy of the hydro-electric company that generates power on Lake Manapouri. The outlet pipe for the power station discharges into Doubtful Sound, and its construction and maintenance has resulted in the limited developments that has made tourism possible here.

Our first view of Doubtful Sound, viewed from the Wilmot Pass

This cruise is billed as an exclusive, luxury experience so there are just 10 passengers, plus the skipper and a chef who will attend to our every culinary need for the next 24 hours.

Of course “luxury” is difficult to achieve on such a small boat, but at least Mrs P and I are staying in the relatively spacious master cabin at the bow (or the sharp, pointy end, as Mrs P likes to call it.) We can feel the eyes of our fellow passengers boring into us as we make our way forward, past their lowly cabins to our own floating palace.

Our ‘palace’ at the ‘sharp pointy end’ of the boat.

Do we feel slightly awkward or embarrassed? No, not a bit. In life you win some and lose some, and this time we won big. Thank you to our agents, New Zealand in Depth, for being on the ball and making sure our name was at the top of the list.

By the time we’ve got ourselves sorted out in our cabin, a welcome lunch is being served upstairs on the main passenger deck. The skipper casts off and sets sail up Doubtful Sound, passing towering waterfalls along the way, while we dine like royalty.

Our cruise along Milford Sound took place on a glorious, sunny day. We thought that was great, but old Milford hands told us that the place has more atmosphere in gloomy weather. We visit Doubtful Sound on just such a day: grey, dull, and misty, and the place does indeed have a brooding, slightly eerie atmosphere.

A perch for our supper

One of the advantages of being on such a small boat is that it allows passengers to get closer to the water than was possible on the Milford Sound trip. Some of our fellow passengers enjoy a spot of kayaking, and there’s an opportunity to fish for our supper.

This handsome dogfish was released after the obligatory trophy photos

Personally I’m uncomfortable with the taking of any life for sport, so am delighted that the handsome dogfish is released from the hook and put back continue his life in the Sound. However perch make good eating, so I have no objections when it is despatched quickly and humanely, and served up to us a couple of hours later.

A rainbow stretches from side to side across the Sound

After a peaceful night’s sleep anchored in a sheltered cove we set off along the Sound again. Rain has set in, but it brings an unexpected bonus in the form of a bright, iridescent rainbow.

One of the very few other boats on Doubtful Sound

While in Milford Sound there were large numbers of tourist boats, here on Doubtful there are only a couple of others and although we see them briefly they are soon out of sight and forgotten. It feels as if we have the Sound to ourselves.

A shag in search of a late breakfast … or maybe an early lunch?

Except for the birds, that is. Mrs P is delighted to take this photo of a shag in flight, its head thrust forward as it makes its way along the water, presumably in search of a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Fiordland Crested Penguins

Bur pride of place must go to the Fiordland Crested Penguins. These birds are very rare, but this is now the third or fourth good sighting we have enjoyed in recent days.

Finally, after almost 24 hours on board, our Doubtful Sound cruise comes to an end. It’s been a magical experience, with majestic scenery, some great wildlife and superb hospitality from the crew. Definitely one of the main highlights so far of our visit to New Zealand.

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On Milford Sound

12 November 2019

We open the curtains at our lodge accommodation with some trepidation. Milford Sound gets an average of 641 centimetres (252 inches) of rain a year, and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, and one of the wettest in the world. Given our bad luck with the weather so far this trip, we could be in for another deluge here.

But, joy of joys, the sun’s out and the sky’s blue, so we make our way down to the harbour with a spring in our steps. We board our gleaming catamaran with a few dozen other fellow travellers and prepare to head out along the Sound.

Here’s a little question for you: when is a sound not a sound. Answer: when it’s a fiord (fjord). Sounds are carved out of the landscape by rivers, while fiords are scraped and scoured out of the bedrock by glaciers. Milford Sound was formed by the process of glaciation over several million years and should therefore more properly be called Milford Fiord. But what’s in a name? However it was created, Milford Sound is pretty damned impressive, with sheer rock faces on either side that rise as high as 1,200 metres (3,900 feet).

Within a few minutes of leaving the harbour we are alongside one of the Sound’s most spectacular features, the Lady Bowen Falls. As one of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, the falls provide electricity for the Milford Sound settlement by feeding a small hydroelectric scheme. It’s also the source of their fresh water.

As well as the two permanent waterfalls there are many others that appear after heavy rain. Because there’s been so much rain recently there are plenty of falls along the length of the Sound for us to admire. Our boat noses underneath one of them to give the passengers a closer look.

A plucky crew member, kitted out in waterproofs and wearing a long-suffering expression, is despatched to collect water as it cascades on to the bow of the boat. Glasses are then passed round, so we can all try mountain fresh, ice cold water. It’s a kind offer, but one I find I can resist without too much trouble.

The boat ploughs on, and we continue to enjoy the scenery. Rudyard Kipling came here, and reportedly described this place as the 8th Wonder of the World. That’s probably overdoing it a bit, but it’s easy to see why Milford Sound inspired him.

But it’s not just the scenery. The wildlife here is special too, and we are pleased to meet up once again with our friend from earlier in this trip, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. At first we encounter one paddling past our catamaran, seemingly unperturbed by our presence.

A little later on, close to the mouth of the Sound, the skipper edges close to the rocks where these penguins have been seen on previous trips, and we’re pleased to see one. The waves are crashing into the rock on which he sits. He looks uncomfortable, but I guess it’s all in a day’s work to a bird that’s adapted to live most of its life in the ocean.

Having reached the end of the Sound we turn, and edge our way back towards the harbour, passing waterfalls large and small. Stirling Falls is a massive 151 metres high.

We’ve opted for the super-deluxe trip, so we break our journey at the Harrison Cove Underwater Observatory, for a glimpse of life beneath the surface of Milford Sound. Here’s how they describe their operation:

You’ll descend 64 steps (10 metres) underwater into a large, fully air-conditioned viewing area where windows with excellent clarity open your eyes to this underwater haven. Unlike an aquarium, the fish are free to come and go; it’s the people who are contained.

SOURCE: Southern Discoveries website, retrieved 24 November 2019

The Observatory certainly adds a whole new dimension to the Milford Sound experience. The “black coral” – which is actually white until it dies – is delicate and beautiful. Occasionally a fish swims past, and we are told that if you’re lucky – we aren’t, sadly – you may even catch a glimpse of a penguin or a seal.

Milford Sound is regarded by many as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It’s certainly big business. During our morning on the water we spot a number of other vessels undertaking similar cruises. But the Sound is huge and can easily accommodate the numbers, and I’m sure that all the visitors leave happy with the experience they’ve had. Milford Sound is a very special place.

Heading south: seals, pancake rocks and a lighthouse

4 November 2019

Bidding a fond farewell to the Omau Settlers Lodge and resisting the urge to kidnap Alfred the Great – see my previous post! – we nip along to the nearby beach to admire the striking rock formations.

Then it’s up to the nearby cliffs for a look at the Cape Foulwind lighthouse.  Although there’s been a lighthouse here since 1876, the current building dates from 50 years later when the keepers were laid off and operations automated.  But there’s little romance in an automated, concrete-towered lighthouse, so we quickly move on to something of more interest: the fur seal colony at Tauranga Bay, just a couple of miles up the coast.

We’ve already seen many more fur seals on this trip than I’d expected.  It’s reckoned that before the ancestors of the Maori arrived in the thirteenth century, the islands that now make up New Zealand were home to around 3 million fur seals.   The new arrivals were dedicated seal hunters and by the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in the late 18th century there were an estimated 1.5m-1.8m seals left, about a 40% decline.

That loss was nothing compared to the effect of European sealing, which peaked between about 1790-1820.  It’s estimated that this new wave of sealing activity reduced the population to about 10,000 animals, or about 0.4 % of the pre-human population.

Today, the Department of Conservation estimates the country’s fur seal population is about 200,000 animals, about 5% – 10% of pre-human numbers.  By any standards this is a remarkable recovery, and we’re pleased to enjoy the consequence of this at Tauranga Bay, where there are plenty of good-looking fur seals strutting their stuff.

But we haven’t done with coastal scenery as we head off to visit Pancake Rocks.  These are the centrepiece of Paparoa National Park, which is famed for its variety of stunning landscapes.

The Pancake Rocks are layered limestone formations dating back 30 million years, when layers of lime rich mud were deposited on the seabed and then overlain with weaker sheets of soft mud and clay.  The seabed was slowly tilted and raised to form coastal cliffs, and wind and water have etched out the soft layers to produce the unmistakable “stack of pancakes” effect.

The result is a bizarre, fascinating landscape which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Even better there are plenty of birds passing the time of day, sitting on the rocks or whizzing swiftly between them.  Mrs P manages to capture an image of a Caspian Tern heading off, probably in search of lunch.

New Zealand has 15,000 kilometres of coastline, supposedly the ninth longest of any country.  Today we’ve been treated to some of its best bits, and as we head towards the famous Fiordlands on the south-west of South Island it should get even better … and even wetter. 

It’s a rainforest down there and the clue, as they say, is in the word “rain.”  Good job we’ve packed our rain gear.